‘The Abyss’ – an English translation of Jeyamohan’s Tamil novel ‘Ezhaam Ulagam’

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‘The Abyss’ – an English translation of Jeyamohan’s Tamil novel ‘Ezhaam Ulagam’

Jeyamohan is one of the most important writers in India today, a sage and artist of our times. Like Dostoevesky, his fiction grapples with the perennial questions of humanity, providing astonishing insight into our existence. His most significant work yet is a 26-part roman-fleuve called Venmurasu (The White Drum), a serialised reimagination of the Mahabharata. Spanning more than 25,000 pages, it is amongst the longest literary works in the world, and was serialized on his website, one chapter a day. 

He is also a renowned scriptwriter, with films like Naan Kadavul, Venthu Thaninthadu Kaadu and most recently, the two-part Ponniyin Selvan to his credit. Bala’s Naan Kadavul, which bagged two National Awards and became a cult classic, was based on Jeyamohan’s novel Ezhaam Ulagam (‘The Abyss’). 

The novel is available, for the first time, in English translation, published by Juggernaut Books. As the novel’s translator and long-time reader of Baradwaj Rangan’s blog, I wanted to reach out to the readers here, in case you will be interested in reading it. 

Link to ‘The Abyss’ – http://tinyurl.com/theabyssbook

Jeyamohan spent his early twenties as a wandering mendicant. He wore ochre robes, roamed around India ticket-free, and lived with beggars in temple towns.  “The Abyss” came out of that. It takes us deep into the world of beggars, makes us experience their suffering and freedom. 

Jeyamohan wrote “The Abyss” in 2003, his mendicant days long past – in five days. What made him write it, I asked him in an interview. 

“It is a litmus test for a human being,” he said. “You dip a human being in acid and ask what remains.” 

What an extreme experiment, I thought. But it is true. That experience is indeed performed in the novel, and its insight into human beings is revelatory. 

There is suffering in a beggar’s life. But in India there has also always been a strong strain of spiritual striving among beggars. Siddhar, baul, nath, jogi – begging is a way of life for such ascetics. They embrace it. It is a strange thing for a modern mind to comprehend.

The novel’s texture emerges out of the juxtaposition of these two worlds – the most abject and the most sublime. I found this aspect hardest to reconcile when I first read the novel. But translating it has reshuffled something inside, brought me a new understanding. How close is liberation to suffering, yet how far! The novel also contrasts the beggars’ lives with the  domestic afflictions of Pandaram, who unfeelingly trades in human beings. His sufferings, we later realize with a jolt, are essentially not different from that of the beggars.

The novel is full of such electric moments. The novel shocks us less with what it shows of the outside world; rather, it shocks us more with what it reveals to us of ourselves. There are very few books being written in India today that gets into this zone, with such intensity.

When Bala made Naan Kadavul in 2009, it was clear to the readers of the novel that he really got Ezhaam Ulagam. Ilaiyaraja scored the music. Both the film and its music were great interpretations of the spirit of the novel. The appeal of the song ‘Pitchai paathiram’ [The begging bowl] hasn’t faded to this day. I have subtitled the Tamil lyrics in English for non-Tamil audiences. 

Twenty years after Ezhaam Ulagam was written, it comes out in English in my translation. It’s a privilege. I hope it brings readers in English a bit closer to Jeyamohan’s life-changing work. 

– Suchitra Ramachandran

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